A Refusal to Serve Against Liberty: Isaac N. Brown Quits the U.S. Navy

In 1860, Isaac Newton Brown was a respected lieutenant in the United States Navy with over 26 years of honorable service. He was so highly thought of by his superiors that he was selected in May 1860 to serve as executive officer on the U.S.S. Niagara, which was given the plum assignment of returning a group of Japanese diplomats to their homeland. The trip to Japan and then back to the United States took an entire year, and when the Niagara sailed into Boston Harbor in the spring of 1861, she returned to a homeland divided by Civil War.

Isaac Newton Brown had to choose sides, a prospect that must have been daunting to a man that had spent his entire adult life serving in the United States navy. He was, however, a native Southerner, having been born in Kentucky, and since the 1840’s he had lived with his wife and children, when not at sea, on a plantation in Coahoma County, Mississippi.

Brown chose to go with his adopted state, and tendered his resignation as an officer in the United States navy. He wrote of this decision later, “I returned a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy from service abroad after the commencement of the late unhappy troubles. My family home had been in the state of Miss. for more than a quarter of a century previous to that time, and my wife and children were then resident there.” – Confederate Applications for Presidential Pardons, 1865-1867, application of Isaac N. Brown. Accessed via Ancestry.com.


1857 Illustration of the U.S.S. Niagara - U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.
1857 Illustration of the U.S.S. Niagara – U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.


Word of Brown’s resignation from the navy spread quickly throughout Boston, and the news stirred up a hornet’s nest of anger toward the former lieutenant. In a letter written to Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus, Brown described what happened when he stepped off the Niagara in Boston harbor:

Louisville, Ky May 3rd, 1861
Ex. J.J. Pettus, Gov., &c
Dear Sir
Though unknown to you personally I venture in the exigency of the moment to write what follows – I have just gotten away from Boston

Illustration of Isaac Newton Brown - U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph
Illustration of Isaac Newton Brown – U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph

where I was detained for several days with I presume the intent to be turned over as a prisoner of war. My resignation was immediate upon my arrival in the Niagara from Japan, and as it was made in the usual way its acceptance by the captain of the Niagara should have relieved me from all further dependence upon govt. orders.
So much for myself – premising merely that I was on my arrival at Boston 1st Lt. of the Niagara turned from that position ashore & arrested by the Gov. of Mass. – for treason, my crime being a refusal to serve against liberty – law, the rights of man – in a word my country, wife and children. However I am now here on my way home, and will be free to take my own course as soon as I can hear of my dismissal from the Navy.
While at Boston I was asked very significantly by a friend of the South if I lived near Yazoo City. This question was in connection with the subject of John Brown (Son of the old traitor hung in Virginia) whom my interlocutor termed a Hell Hound, and said that he was loose somewhere, & he feared would soon be heard of. I mention this for what it is worth possibly it might be well to have unusual vigilance directed towards the locality named.
I escaped through Vermont and Canada, Ohio & Indiana. Every where North and West the feeling is terribly hostile to the South, and the least violent demand from us total submission and disarming. Such seems to be the popular sentiment. I told those to whom I could talk that they would have submission from the South when the male race ceased to live there.
The time I think has come for the battle of human liberty to begin, for it seems to have been a mistake about it having been fought in America. I am fatigued with travel & hastening on home to Coahoma Miss. (Helena Ark. Is my P.O.), and I pray you pardon this hurried letter.
In great haste, very truly yours,
I.N. Brown
Late Lieut. U.S.N.

Original letter is in the John J. Pettus Correspondence, Series 757, Box 932, Folder 1, Mississippi Department of Archives & History

I did some looking, and found the following account of the arrest of Isaac Newton Brown in the Charleston Courier, May 7, 1861:

Arrest of Navy Officers in Boston – We find the following in the Boston Courier, of the 27th ult.: Considerable excitement was created on State street yesterday morning by the statement that the First Lieutenant of the Niagara, Isaac N. Brown, had resigned his commission and had purchased a ticket for Louisville, Ky. It was also said that he had avowed his determination to fight for the flag which he should find floating over his plantation. Mr. Wm. C. Dunham heard the above remark, and at his instance Mr. W.L. Burt made a complaint before Mr. C.L. Woodbury, United States District Attorney, that Lieutenant Brown had signified his intention of returning to the South, and also that he had given utterance to seditious language. After hearing the evidence, the Attorney decided that it was not strong enough to authorize him to place Brown under arrest, and referred the complaints to Gov. Andrew, as Commander-in-Chief of the State. He advised Mr. Burt to apply to Gov. Andrew, who at once authorized his arrest. He was then arrested by the Police, and the Mayor informed Mr. Dunham in the following note:

MAYOR’S OFFICE, CITY HALL, Boston, April 25, 1861.

Mr. W.C. Dunham – Sir: – Lieut. I.N. Brown, late of the Niagara, is in the custody of the police of this city, and will so remain until released by the Governor or other competent authority.


At 2 o’clock, the following order was received from the Navy Yard by Lieut. Brown, who was in custody at the City Hall:

U.S. Frigate Niagara, Boston Harbor, April 25, 1861

Sir: – You are hereby detached from this ship, and will report to Captain William L. Hudson, Commandant of the Navy Yard, Charlestown. I am, respectfully, your obedient servant,

WM. W. MCKEAN, Captain, To Lieut. Isaac N. Brown, U.S. Navy

The Mayor accompanied the Lieutenant to the Navy Yard, and he consented to take the oath to support the Constitution of the United States; and was willing to take an oath not to fight during the war, if released from the service on his parole of honor; but he felt that he could not take the oath to obey any future orders which might be given him, as under the present circumstances of the country the oath might require him to attack and destroy the residence of his wife and children.

The crowd who were in pursuit of Lieutenant Brown, broke open some boxes belonging to him at the depot. They contained only Japan curiosities &c., and were not further disturbed.

As Brown made his way home, Southern newspapers heralded his return. The following article was published by the Memphis Appeal on May 5, 1861, and reprinted by the Macon Telegraph on May 11:


We were happy to meet Lieut. I.N. Brown, late of the United States Navy, and late prisoner of the authorities of Boston, on our streets yesterday, en route to his home in Mississippi. From the accounts we have already published, it will be remembered that Lieut. Brown was in command of the Niagara in the laying of the Atlantic cable. After this service, his ship was detailed to take the Japanese embassy to their far distant home, and on his return to Boston he, among others, was arrested for misprision of treason for refusing to take the new oath of allegiance prescribed by the Lincoln Government. He, however, was not detained as prisoner more than some two hours. By the indisposition of the Mayor of Boston longer to detain him, he was permitted to make his escape through Boston, from whence he paid his fare from station to station until he reached Canada. Being then in a free country, he bought a through ticket to Louisville, from whence he came to this city by rail. He left yesterday evening on the steamer Victoria for his home in Coahoma County, Mississippi, and will probably today be received at his own fireside by the joyous congratulations of wife, children and friends.

Lieut. Brown speaks in high terms of the Mayor and other officials, as well as of many citizens of Boston in rescuing him from the mobocratic spirit that now holds sway throughout the North. He met with many kindly greetings from private citizens, who assured him that there were those yet left in Boston who did not approve of such a spirit, although they might be compelled to keep their peace.

We congratulate Mr. Brown on his release and escape, and indulge the hope that the time may not be far distant when we shall see him a Commodore, commanding not only a single, but a fleet of ships, in the cause of the Confederate States of America.

Isaac Newton Brown’s story was just beginning, as much was to be heard of him during the war. I plan to write of his further exploits in a future blog posting.



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